Get Out: why racism really is terrifying
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Warning: this article contains spoilers
Get Out is a comedy-inflected horror story about what it means to be black in America. It’s Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and until now he has been more widely recognised as one half of comedy duo Key and Peele. But as a director, he makes this movie work – even a little too well. In fact, the only thing more scary than the film are some of the reviews.To summarise: a talented young black photographer called Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) goes on a trip with Rose, his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to visit her parents. Having already worried that the parents might be racist, Chris is disturbed to find that the seemingly-liberal family has a number of black “servants” who behave like zombies, seemingly controlled and manipulated by an unseen force. He is further unsettled by (mostly white) visitors to the house who make gauche, racially-charged and fetishising comments, crooning over Chris’s “frame and genetic make-up” and announcing “Black is in fashion!” Chris’s fears are realised, and worse. The Armitage family turn out not just to be racist, but to be pathological “negrophiles”. They have developed a horrifying system of abducting, brainwashing and ultimately brain-swapping black people, to use them as pets, sex slaves or repurposed body substitutes. Rose’s hypnotherapist mother mesmerises Chris to make him believe that he is trapped at the bottom of a deep pit. And while Chris wonders how to escape without appearing rude, Rose’s neurosurgeon father auctions him off – to be stripped of his brain – to a blind art critic who wants nothing less than to “see through [his] eyes”. Seasoned horror buffs will know that the standard resolution to a survival-horror film of this type (police turn up at the final hour, villain is dispatched, hero is saved, all’s well that ends well) is not to be anticipated. The “black guy always dies first” has become a self-reflexive horror-movie trope. And if Facebook Live videos have taught us anything, it’s that this uneasily applies to the real world as well. Then again, we might also recall that other classic horror that happens to feature a black male protagonist. In George Romero’s 1968 film Night of The Living Dead the hero gets all the way to the end of the film, only to be shot dead by the authorities – just in time for the end credits.
The horrors of slaveryComing in the wake of a slew of slavery-themed dramas such as Roots, Underground and Twelve Years a Slave, Get Out is a transparent nod to the genre. The slavery subtext is hinted at early on when we find that Rose’s liberal, professional mother goes by the name of “Missy”: a common appellation for the Mistress of a slave-holding. Yet the film’s subtle genius lies in its ability to trace almost invisible, yet indelible lines of continuity from the centuries-long slavery period to the present day. Historically, anti-slavery rhetoric – which traces its own history back to the late 18th century – tended to focus on the inhuman physical conditions of the slave ship, and the moral incongruity of human chattel. There remains a cultural tendency to view the “horrors of slavery” in the same concretely objective terms, but it bears stating that white abolitionists were not necessarily of the opinion that blacks were equal to whites. They saw the practice of slavery as dehumanising and degrading to all those who participated in it. During the 19th century, slavery increasingly became both a liability and an embarrassment to what purported to be civilised societies.
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